With the recent death of Fred Ward, moviegoers mourn the loss of a talented actor. Since The good thing for silk wood, Ward has proven to be a talented, if not underrated, presence. When you think of Ward, one movie comes to mind first and foremost: Tremors.
When Tremors was released in theaters in 1990, it was a colossal failure. Debuting at number five on opening weekend, it never gained traction. It found a second life, however, on home video, becoming a cult hit that would lead to a seven-film franchise and a short-lived television series.
Part of that success is down to the film’s clever premise. A story of giant worms underground that can sense the vibrations of their human prey was familiar enough in its monster movie roots, but it had never been done that way. With its interactive atmosphere, reminiscent of zombie movies, the viewer wonders how would you escape and how could you fight back.
While the film lives up to that potential with its fast-paced story and amazing practical effects, it’s the characters that make the film memorable. Movie critic Roger Ebert summed it up best, when in his review of the film he said, “Tremors is smart enough to realize that the characters are the driving force of a great story, not the monsters or the violence.”
Tremors is an impeccable ensemble film. While Kevin Bacon may have been one of the two main stars, it was not a vehicle used to promote his success. Sure, Free from all ties had changed the cinematic landscape, but that was half a decade earlier, and Bacon had yet to follow up with something so successful.
It’s every cast member who makes Tremors job, from the nerdy seismologist who’s braver than everyone else (and who Bacon’s character pines for), to the badass husband-and-wife survivors played by Michael Gross and Reba McEntire. It is around Ward and Bacon’s Earl and Val, as handymen in a sparsely populated Nevada town called Perfection, that the film revolves. On paper, the two do not work together. Ward’s Earl Bassett is 15 years older than his counterpart and a bit grumpy. Bacon’s Valentine “Val” McKee is the young, energetic, carefree twenties.
When we first meet them, it’s morning in the desert and Earl is sound asleep in the back of their van. To wake him up, Val jumps on the truck and shouts “Rout!” until Earl, fearing for his life, jumps and falls from the truck. This is followed, however, with Val offering Earl a cigarette. They then move on to argue over who gets to cook breakfast, but when Val loses a game of Rock Paper Scissors, he accepts his fate with only minimal complaints about Earl’s age. When frustrated hanging a barbed wire fence, Earl asks, “Is this a job for smart men?” Val is quick with the abrupt return of “Show me one. I’ll ask her.” Ouch. Yet they go straight from that to talking directly about finding different jobs and the possible loss of their freedom. When Earl talks to Val about never planning their work ahead of time, Val keeps her mouth shut, knowing the old man is right.
That’s how it is with these two. They argue about everything, but it’s more repartee between friends than real fights. Not even five minutes later, and we’ve already had an effective introduction to our heroes. They are opposites in many ways, but they also come together. They depend on each other. And we can already see how their traits (Earl’s ability to plan ahead and Val’s desire to live in the moment) will help them later on.
This is tested when graboids (the name given to deadly giant worms) appear. That’s when these two men, who are fed up with their jobs and running out of money, have to focus on alerting the town to what’s going on. After finding a few corpses and fearing that a serial killer is on the loose, Earl and Val race toward perfection without hesitation. More than anything, they are brave and care about their neighbors. When the serial killer theory turns out to be monstrous, killer worms, the duo ride horses, run for help, planning what to do along the way. Even the unimaginable cannot scare them. They are fighters.
When they accidentally manage to kill one of the graboids, they start arguing again as they decide what to do next. “Why don’t we just run it, we passed it yesterday?” Val offers, to which Earl replies, “Run there!” Running is not a plan, running is what you do when a plan fails. As they escalate, Earl states that they need to think of a plan, and Val replies, “I have one. You start thinking, ‘we can only laugh. Even in a moment of impending doom where their lives are in grave danger, the two still argue.
Their best moments come in the second half of the film, as the city begins to fight back. Earl and Vale pole vault over rocks. Val races to save a little girl on a pogo stick as a graboid heads straight for her, putting her life on the line without a second thought, before racing to save the seismologist right after.
In the film’s climax, what we learned in those first five minutes about Earl and Val shines through. The remaining survivors of the city are trapped on a large rock, surrounded by the last two graboids. That’s when Earl, the smartest, most patient who plans ahead, has the brilliant idea of putting a rope around a homemade explosive and throwing it through the earth, pulling it to deceive one of the graboids to take it. That works. The graboid takes it and blows itself up. Only one graboid remains.
The last graboid is not so gullible. He too takes the lasso like a hooked fish, but then spits it out. He lands on the rock, sending the townspeople rushing for their lives. Earl and Val find themselves several meters from the rock, completely exposed. With one bomb remaining, the roles are reversed. Earl doesn’t know what to do anymore, but carefree Val suddenly does. He is calm. He plans ahead. Val learned from Earl. He runs full speed from the rock and Earl runs with him instead of getting to safety, even though he has no idea what Val is up to.
Val drives the graboid to the edge of a cliff, where it bursts open and falls to its bloody, splashing death. Everyone is saved. Earl and Val have come together, as they have for so long, to protect their friends and each other. In the end, they also learn from each other. Val showed it with her ability to plan ahead and outsmart the final graboid. Earl shows what he learned from his friend in the final moments of the film. It turns out that carefree Val is more afraid of women than giant worms, as he’s afraid to tell the seismologist he was struck by how he feels, letting her walk away. Without saying a word, Earl slams the hood of the truck and gives Val a long look. Go get her, he said. He doesn’t plan ahead, he doesn’t think about the next job. He lives in the moment. Earl remembers what it’s like to be young and carefree and only wants the best for his friend. Val runs after her and grabs the girl.
While Fred Ward would return for Tremors 2Kevin Bacon didn’t (he was gone to do Apollo 13 Instead). Another young and wise character was brought in to try and regain Earl and Val’s magic, but it didn’t work. What Fred Ward and Kevin Bacon accomplished could not be replaced. They turned what could have been a simple monster paint-by-number movie into something more.
Their relationship makes a potentially dark horror movie fun, where the friends can bicker and moan, but still be there and learn from each other while making us laugh. They’re the perfect action movie pal duo. Their characters could have been found in any of the lethal weapon buddy type copy clones of movies that were so popular at that time. Instead, we get them in the middle of nowhere, hunting for human-eating worms. Who can ever forget that?
‘Tremors’ star Fred Ward dies at 79
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